Why adding the armistice storyline was ‘the missing piece’ to our ‘All Quiet’ script

Lesley Patterson
“The first readable draft was bad. We knew it wasn’t great, but when our reader pointed out that it was worse than horrible, I sat in the car and cried,” writes screenwriter Lesley Paterson of working on the “All Quiet on the Western Front” script.
(Jennifer McCord / For The Times)

The cardinal rule of adapting a book into a film is: Don’t disregard the source material. A second is don’t copy it. With landing lights that far apart, you’d think it would come down to simply choosing the right runway, until you realize they’re all covered in black ice — the reader’s imagination, which you’re going to destroy whether you like it or not. In reality, no work of fiction comes with a chastity belt that disallows it from being reimagined or retold for newer audiences. But trying to select which elements to include and which to leave out often feels like being asked to choose your favorite organ.

The first readable draft [from Ian Stokell and me] was bad. We knew it wasn’t great, but when our reader pointed out that it was worse than horrible, I sat in the car and cried. Where had we gone so wrong? We tossed out the draft and started again, this time going all in on theme: betrayal, the brutality and dehumanizing effect of war, the pathos of loss — of innocence, love, friendship, a full stomach — and of course the dark edges of patriotic fervor. What’s left is a war story devoid of its genre catnip, the sense of heroism and adventure that dominates war films penned by the winning side.


Edward Berger’s harrowing new adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel will represent Germany in the Oscar race for international feature.

But there were more problems to be solved. The novel is beautiful but difficult to adapt. It’s narrated with an almost reportage style — a somewhat unemotional, factual telling of events. We needed a cinematic throughline to keep driving the story forward. After my husband and I spent a week in the Compiègne Forest visiting the armistice train carriage, we found it. The grim historical details of that November morning mirrored the thematic spine of Erich Maria Remarque’s work. The fact that the Reich sent a career politician (Matthias Erzberger, played by Daniel Brühl) to lead the delegation of negotiators was yet another example of Remarque’s central theme: betrayal. (Erzberger was the scapegoat, for which he was later murdered by an antisemitic terrorist group who considered him a traitor for signing the armistice.) This was the missing piece.

Adding the armistice story line solved another problem too — how to historically situate the story for modern audiences, many of whom know little of WWI or its geopolitical context. When the book was published in 1929, the world was blind to a second conflict, only a decade away. Remarque’s novel, as well as Lewis Milestone’s best picture winner from 1930, were oblivious to how the deal points in the armistice would be seedlings to Hitler’s deranged ideology that sprang from resentment and blame.

Two soldiers shout in each other's faces as others rampage behind them.
Celebrating the armistice was part of a storyline added to the film.

If we were to stay true to Remarque’s insistence that the book be a lesson to us all about the impact of war, it felt fitting that we should add this context — even if it didn’t appear in the original text or subsequent adaptations. With our knowledge of how history unfolded, we felt we had the responsibility to shine a light on what was yet to come, that this was not the end of the horror but only the beginning. Adding the armistice story line also enabled us to juxtapose stronger tonal shifts, scene to scene, giving the audience time to breathe from the immersive, emotional brutality of watching trench warfare. The book is far more violent than depicted in the two previous film adaptations, and we wanted modern audiences to reconnect with its brutality.


After 16 years of development Tinder, the right timing came. We were approached by German producer Malte Grunert (Amusement Park Films) and director Edward Berger with a simple ask: Would we consider doing the film in German? The truth is we had considered it but were frequently counseled against it on purely commercial grounds. But the landscape had changed — Sam Mendes’ “1917” reinvigorated interest in WWI and a foreign-language film, “Parasite,” won best picture at the Academy Awards. When Edward Berger told us his vision, we were bowled over by it. I don’t think we realized it before — it wasn’t just language, there was a latent sensibility missing, a sensibility that was uniquely German to complement our own outside-in perspective.

The film used letters from those at war -- and their metaphorical descriptions of the sounds -- to be aurally authentic yet not pinned to “scientific” accuracy.

It all sounds rather obvious now, but back then we understood this only on an intellectual level. We’d read enough German trench diaries and historical analysis to try to walk and talk in the shoes of men who felt anything but heroic or proud, but there was something deeper, visceral even, that we simply couldn’t infuse, because … well, we’re not German. It’s one thing to cogitate and empathize with national shame and collective culpability, but it’s another thing entirely to grow up with it, to have it tattooed on your DNA.

As Edward reminds us — as a German, it’s impossible to think about the two world wars from any perspective other than shame and guilt. As Brits writing about a German experience, this wasn’t just agency and appropriation of voice, it was in everything — tone and soundscape, shot composition, the entire visual telling of the story. Edward imbued the script with this sensibility that wasn’t just morally responsible, it made for a better film. It was a masterful stroke, and we couldn’t be prouder of the result.